|CBC President Hubert Lacoix|
"What we'd like to do is expand our presence in the regions," Lacroix is quoted as saying. "You can't be a national broadcaster — I've said this since the moment I walked in — without being deeply, deeply rooted in the regions."
This is good news coming from a national public broadcaster that, in the past, has tried to be a media "playa" by getting ratings hits. The CBC has tried to show the the federal government (which largely funds the CBC) that it is worth every penny of its $1 billion annual budget for one reason: it delivers eyeballs to advertisers, just like the big boys do in commercial TV.
CBC Radio on the other hand, remains non-commercial, but it too has tried to appeal to the same media market with more pop music and host driven interview shows.
While the ratings for some of the new TV offerings have been undoubted hits, the value of the CBC to Canadians seems more questionable than ever. Its popular television fare seem rooted in reality TV from ten years ago, while the CBC has doubled-down on hockey and related spin-offs which have proven to be popular in this hockey-mad country, but that affection for sports does not seem to be transferred to an appreciation for the CBC itself.
More problematic are the changes to CBC News. Budget and staff cutbacks have been done by a deliberate focusing on news on the cheap: crime, traffic and weather. The once highly contextual coverage is looking and sounding pretty thin these days, with excited banter compensating for a lack of depth.
On CBC Radio, music programming (mostly indie and pop and decidedly Canadian) has seen a huge audience decline as classical music - so loved by the core audience - has been largely abandoned.
The CBC overall continues to struggling to find a role that is both unique and popular in a fractured media landscape. Not an easy task.
While the Lacroix announcement may have played well inside CBC HQ on Front Street, it probably garnered less support among that once loyal, core audience. These longtime supporters of the public broadcaster are feeling dissed and abandoned and they are actively looking for alternatives.
CBC management dismissed this core as being out of date and elitist, especially under former VP Richard Stursburg whose quest for popularity and ratings deformed the traditional appeal of the CBC. Stursburg was fired by Lacroix last summer, allegedly over disagreeing precisely this change in direction toward the regions.
So what does it mean and what might it portend?
First, the "regions" is code at the CBC for "not coming from Toronto."
This is not always a bad thing, although some network-centric programmers in Toronto would surely disagree. If the regions were able to really have programming input that served a local audience, it might be even better.
I once suggested to a previous CBC VP that the scheduling might best be handed over to the stations, leaving local managers to decide what worked best for their audiences. Said VP looked as though I had uttered something truly obscene. At the CBC, "serving the regions" means giving local stations the right to accept whatever Toronto tells them to broadcast.
Second, the idea of more local radio is a good one, provided that the content is there to support it. The notion that local radio could originate from internet streaming live programming is a good way of expanding service while minimizing costs. The question of who listens to their computer over breakfast still needs to be assessed.
Third, while this is all good in principle, some tough questions facing the CBC are still not being addressed.
They are some to start with:
- What is the role of the public broadcaster in 2011?
- Can service be expanded without diluting quality?
- Should the CBC be expected to provide everything to everyone as per "Everyone Every Way" with its present budget?
- If the CBC had to make hard choices about what it should be (without being forced to by the federal government) what would it look like and sound like?
- Finally, what can be done to restore public trust and support for the CBC?
Management has said that a CBC version of PBS or TVO (the Ontario public TV broadcaster) is not an option, but they never say why. My guess is that if they ever openly considered that route, the federal government would quickly agree and slash the budget. Which is bound to happen, especially if the Conservatives win a majority in Parliament.
But without considering other options, "Everyone Every Way" is a step in the right direction, but the CBC is only forestalling the inevitable.
Which may not be so bad after all.